Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Child and Family Services whistleblower says health and safety of children threatened

The health and safety of kids is threatened by a failure to respond to concerns and financial mismanagement at Manitoba's largest child welfare authority, says a CFS whistleblower who cites the "risky" placement of a child as an example of the problems.

Special report calls for government to take over southern CFS authority

The ten agencies under the authority of the Southern First Nations Network of Care are responsible for more than 5,000 children in care. (Costea Andrea M/Shutterstock)

The health and safety of kids is threatened by a failure to respond to concerns and financial mismanagement at Manitoba's largest child welfare authority, says a CFS whistleblower who cites the "risky" placement of a child as an example of the problems.

Bert Crocker, who until recently was a senior policy advisor at the Southern First Nations Network of Care (SFNNC), also said the authority was vulnerable to a cyberattack if planned changes to the IT system were implemented.

Crocker's concerns prompted him to submit a lengthy report to Families Minister Heather Stefanson, calling for her to dissolve the agency's board of directors and appoint an outside administrator. 

"For the most part for my career, I've tried to work within the system and work within it to make improvements through capacity building, through lobbying … and those things appear not to be working anymore," Crocker said.

Crocker, a 45-year veteran of the child welfare system, was let go by the Southern First Nations Network of Care in late November due to internal restructuring, he said.

He first went to Manitoba's Ombudsman at the beginning of October with his concerns, then sent a report to the families minister in November. He said it was with reluctance that he went public based on sections of Manitoba's whistleblower legislation.

His report details allegations that an unnamed child under the care of Peguis Child and Family Services — one of Southern First Nations Network of Care's 10 member agencies — was hastily reunified with her mother, who was subject to an open protection case with Metis Child, Family and Community Services. Protection cases cover a range of concerns, from inadequate care to abuse.

"Without a proper assessment, that was a risky placement to effect," Crocker said.

His report alleged Peguis CFS did not respond to the Southern First Nations Network of Care's questions about the case. 

"Where agencies perceive themselves as autonomous and where there is additional pressure from single-envelope funding to reduce the number of children in formal agency care, corners get cut," said Crocker, referring to the province's new funding model, which gives CFS agencies a lump sum rather than a per-child payment. 

The mother, who was receiving support from Metis Child, Family and Community Services to care for her other children, allegedly allowed her partner to live in the home despite a no-contact order, which prevents a person accused of a crime from contacting victims or other identified people. 

She also allegedly avoided the agency's efforts to contact her, the report says.

Former SFNNC senior policy analyst Bert Crocker is going public with his concerns about Manitoba's largest CFS authority because he believes the health and safety of children are as risk. (John Einarson/CBC )

"The Métis CFS agency was concerned enough about it to write a letter … mentioning in closing that these types of situations sometimes do not end well," Crocker said. 

The report closes by drawing comparing this child to Hunter Straight-Smith, 3, who died in November. His mother's partner is accused of stabbing him while he slept.   

"It is therefore critical that CFS authorities, including [SFNNC], be afforded the ability to ensure that agency omissions are rectified," the report says.

Officials have met with SFNNC and its board about the allegations but could not share more because of confidentiality rules, Families Minister Heather Stefanson said in an emailed statement.

"In the case of the special report referenced, it included numerous allegations that require further review and consideration," Stefanson said.

"The CFS division is working through with the SFNNC to ensure that the health and safety of children in care is not threatened."

The spokesperson for Metis Child, Family and Community Services said they can't confirm involvement or comment upon case-specific child welfare matters. Peguis Child and Family Services did not respond to a request for comment. 

SFNNC said it cannot and will not answer questions about case files, opened or closed, that are confidential under the CFS Act. 

Report warned of cyberattack

The 12-page report also warns of risks to the authority's IT system under proposed changes. One of the agencies under the SFNNC umbrella wanted to open the firewall, which protects the system from unauthorized access through the Internet, to migrate their data and emails to their own server, the report says.

"The risks for the whole SFNNC managed environment associated with opening the firewall include the introduction of ransomware, malware and data insecurity," the report says. 

Just 2½ weeks after the report was delivered to the minister, SFNNC was hit by a computer ransomware attack that disabled its network. 

SFNNC's system was shut down by the introduction of ransomware — a computer attack that blocks access to servers — on Nov. 21, authority officials said.

Files are still inaccessible but email was working as of mid-December.

"Based on the forensic evidence reviewed to date, it does not appear that any data has been compromised," wrote Toronto-based cyber liability lawyer Mouna Hanna, who was retained by SFNNC.

Hanna refused to say whether there was a connection between the attack and the proposed changes to the system, because the investigation is still ongoing. 

An unnamed forensic security firm headquartered outside Winnipeg is leading the investigation and the remediation effort, Hanna said.

Minister of Families Heather Stefanson says putting SFNNC under third-party management is not under consideration at this time. (CBC)

The firm was hired even though the province offered its experts to help get the system back online. 

"SFNNC is not prepared to comment on payment of any legal fees or the costs associated with the forensic investigation firm," Hanna said. 

"To date, everything has run according to plan and is proceeding nicely, so we have not had the need to reach out to the province. However, we are aware of the assistance that they have offered and will certainly reach out if the assistance is required."

Wrongful dismissal suits

SFNNC made major staffing changes after the appointment of a new chair and several new board members in late spring.

The CEO and the chief information officer were subsequently terminated in October and have launched two wrongful dismissal suits.

New appointees to the board had no previous experience with SFNNC but "immediately demonstrated animus," says the CEO's statement of claim filed in Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench. 

A supervisor and a service co-ordinator resigned this fall and Crocker was let go in late November. 

"If money is unnecessarily diverted to payouts of former staff, and that money cannot be used for providing prevention services or protection services where those are needed, that would be a problem," Crocker said.

Both the former CEO and former chief information officer are seeking unspecified damages. No statement of defence has been filed by SFNNC and it declined to comment on the suits. 

Crocker spent decades toiling in Manitoba's child welfare system, where insiders rarely speak out. 

"It is with some reluctance that I have decided to go public," he said.

"The whistleblower protection legislation talks about the ability of those who have a concern — if there doesn't seem to be any other way of that concern being addressed, then going public is a remaining option."

The minister of families should appoint an outside administrator, Crocker said, citing "financial expenditures that amount to financial mismanagement."

Stefanson said she is not contemplating an administration order at this time. Her department will continue to work with partners in child welfare to ensure the safety of children, she said.

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